Haldon moved silently through the dry sand of the arroyo. The shadows cast by the sage and prickly pear were long around him. The men were just ahead.

He’d been on their trail since last night. His stomach soured at the thought. It was his fault. The thought spurred him on.

Minutes later he was crouched at the edge of their firelight. The men were lounging about and talking loudly. Seated amidst them was Ralia.

His gut churned seeing her. Her head was resting in her hands, the tangles of her fiery hair obscured her face. Aside from a few rips in her green silk gown she looked unharmed. He hadn’t expected anything else, but you never knew with these sort.

He ran his eyes over the five men then slipped his left Colt from its holster and stepped forward. His boot came down on a pebble that clattered ahead of him into the fire. One of the men looked up and gasped. A dozen eyes fell on him. Haldon cursed.

He could have shot them then, but Ralia looked up too. Eyes greener than her dress would ever be pinned him with an icy glare. She didn’t look happy to see him. In that moment the men grabbed iron and leveled a half dozen firearms at him. The biggest of them scooped her up with one arm and pressed his pistol under her jaw. Her eyes never left his, they scared him more than the yawning maws of the guns. His pulse raced.

“What do we have here?” the man holding Ralia drawled.

The smile came easy to Haldon’s lips even then. “It looks like we’ve got ourselves a standoff.” The words came out slow and easy.

“Standoff? Hell boy, looks like we’re holding all the cards over here.”

A small shrug of his off hand shoulder. “Everyone’s entitled to an opinion,” Haldon said.

“Well we’ve got the ace in the hole, if you know what I mean.” The big man leaned in and kissed her on the cheek then grinned wickedly.

Ralia’s face didn’t change but her pupils dilated, twin onyx pools in the firelight. Haldon cursed under his breath and let the pistol fall to his side. The big man’s smile widened.

“I’m sorry,” Haldon said.

“You should be,” the big man said. “You should have protected your woman better.”

“That was for you,” Haldon replied.

He might have said something then, but didn’t. It was hard without lips.

It looked like he was puckering his lips at first, just a small hole between them, then the hole expanded and his lips vanished. He tried to pull back, but the dark void had him. His mouth vanished and his nose started to go. Eyes wide, he dropped his gun and frantically pawed at her, at his own face. Ralia stood their impassively while the man’s face disappeared inch by inch a breath away from her cheek. She was still glaring at Haldon. He did his best to not look away.

When it got to his eyes structures in his head failed with meaty snaps. It had his hands now too, his fingers were coming apart. Ralia had explained this to him at one point, but all he remembered was the part about spaghettification. He was reminded of that as the man’s body unraveled before them into the black sphere beside Ralia’s head.

One of the men screamed then and fled, and the rest followed. To his credit one man tried to save his boss, or what was left of him. He swung his pistol toward Ralia. He was fast enough, but Haldon’s gun was already in his hand. He didn’t even have to look away from her. His left hand snapped off the shot and was dropping the Colt back into its holster as the man hit the ground.

The last of the man vanished with a sucking pop and the void collapsed behind him. They were left alone in the twilight with the fire between them. Ralia was still glaring.

“I’m sorry,” Haldon said softly.

Ralia sniffed, but spoke. That was a good sign. “For what?” she asked.

“For everything. For last night, for the kidnapping–”

“Kidnapping? This wasn’t a kidnapping. This was just an interruption in our argument.”

After a day in the saddle he might have disagreed, but he knew she was right. She hadn’t really been in any danger. He’d come after her to avoid an incident, he’d failed in that, and to apologize. Maybe he could still pull that off.

“I’m sorry, Ral. Two broke through in Barrow. They’d already killed a family. I had to go.” he explained.

Her face didn’t change.

“I did ride all the way out here. I brought flowers, they might be a tad wilted now.” he said.

She sniffed again then walked around the fire until she was peering up into his face.

“You got them? Both of them?” she asked, her eyes intent on his.

“I never miss.” He smiled.

A long pause then her eyes left him, but not before he saw the ice break. Tension slipped off his chest.

“They’re going to talk,” he said. “We’ll have to head west unless you want me to go after them.”

She shook her head. “Screw them, and screw leaving. We’re going back to town.”

Not the wisest course of action he thought until she turned to face him again. There was an entirely different expression on her face.

“You did ‘rescue’ me.” Her eyes glimmered.

She trailed a finger lightly along his chest as she walked past him.

“Let’s get back to town and I’ll thank you properly.”

He felt a not unpleasant clench in his stomach this time and he followed her into the night with a grin on his face.

 

——-

The above was my story for a flash fiction challenge at TerribleMinds.

For the challenge I “rolled” the following the elements that I had to include:

Subgenre = 9. Weird West
Problem = 1. Lover’s Quarrel!
Element = 17. A Black Hole

I had to chop the story down quite a bit to squeeze it into the 1,000 word limit so it wound up pretty lean. I was happier with the final result at about 1,200 words, but I still like how it came out.